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Branching dialogue trees poorly serve narrative games, says GDC panel

Three innovations in narrative design examine how to tell a game's story differently

Games that tell stories must strike a balance between authorial control, and player power over the narrative.

That was the recurring theme in today's Game Developers Conference session "The Narrative Innovation Showcase" in which various game developers talked about how they resolve the tension between story and interaction.

Many speakers talked about moving away from the branching dialog model, in which players make choices and are then directed through a story tree toward one or more outcomes.

"A lot of branching narratives are weighted a certain way, which can feel unsatisfactory," said Samantha Gorman, co-creator of Pry (pictured above). Her tablet game is the story of James, a war veteran who is losing his eyesight. The player explores James' mind by interacting with on-screen text and video elements, finding prompts within the story.

"We create an author-defined narrative arc," she added, "with a flexible space which the player can explore."


Aaron Reed, co-creator of The Ice-Bound Concordance (pictured above) said that "branching stories look like a maze, and mazes are static. You can never do anything that will surprise the author. It's all fake, it's a trap." Branching stories offer the illusion of choice, but collapse toward the end, as they seek out pre-determined outcomes.

Ice-Bound asks the player to create their own stories, set in a polar station during different eras. The player is presented with choices of story elements and themes (objects, emotions, goals). The text-based story has editable elements, so that the player can change, say, a character's smile to a frown.

"The game is asking the question, what if exploring an intricate story was like sculpting in clay," explained Reed. "We genuinely didn't know if we could make this work, but we found that players are more engaged if they can build a story, instead of choosing a story."


Elsinore from Golden Glitch Studios (pictured above) is set inside Shakespeare's play Hamlet. The player takes on the role of Ophelia, as she tries to resolve the unfolding tragedy. Players are given unexpected options to affect the outcome, for example, revealing to key characters who the villains are, right at the beginning of the story.

"It's borne of a 'what if?' said co-developer Katie Chironis. "We wanted to explore the concept of tragic gameplay. We wanted to introduce new information that did not exist in the original play."

Players find that, even with the benefit of a time loop, they are unable to save characters from their own tragic flaws. "The player's best intentions are often thwarted," she added. "Players come to understand that it's not about winning, it's about understanding who these characters are."


Cibele is the story of Nina and Blake, two MMO players from opposite ends of the country, who decide to meet up. Written by Nina Freeman, it involves exploring the character Nina's computer desktop, which includes information about the relationship as it unfolds.

"How do I tell the story of a relationship, without overwhelming the player with information?" Freeman asked. The solution was to focus on the two characters meeting each other, as told through emails, videos, pictures and notes that the player discovers. "They convey information and context to the player," she said. "It's all pretty minimal. I leave it up to the player to fill it out."

Offering up some advice, she said that "evocative detail" can give players a lot of information.

"Experiment with or remove beginning, middle and end," Freeman said. "Write something plausible but avoid excessive exposition. Explore stories with unusual shapes."

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